When a gay tutor at Mather House opted to leave Harvard after becoming a target of harassment last year, his friend Serre-Yu Wong ’01 was devastated. “That was a sad moment for our community because we couldn’t come together enough for him, in support of him.”
As a means of fighting back against racial, sexual, and religious intolerance, Wong and her colleagues at the Harvard Foundation organized a weeklong series of events intended to focus attention on the issue of hate crimes. The series began with a lively round-table discussion Wednesday evening at the Buttrick Room in the basement of the Memorial Church.
More than a dozen students participated in the discussion – voicing their thoughts, sharing their experiences, and exposing their fears – during a two-hour free-form session moderated by Chandra J. Johnson, assistant to the president at the University of Notre Dame.
“We are sitting here today because something propelled us to walk through that door,” Johnson told the participants. “This is an opportunity for us to go inside ourselves, to see how our own biases have been formed and fashioned … We are not born with notions of racism. These kinds of social ills have been projected onto us – and if not us then people that we know. These things are very, very real and people’s spirits are destroyed every day as a result of a bias or a misconception.”
One student spoke of her isolation growing up black in a small all-white fishing village in Canada. Another talked about his mother’s fear that he would be killed because he is gay and black. A Jewish student from Nashville spoke of the insensitivity accorded her faith by people in her adopted hometown.
“The main reason why I’m here is I wanted to hear other people’s experiences regarding hate crimes,” said Ada Maxwell ’02. “I have not been a victim of hate crimes in any way. I’ve only had positive experiences in terms of cultural and racial dialogue [at Harvard], but I know that it happens, so the whole idea is to be aware – even if it’s not you and your friends – to know that it happens. The only way to change things is through awareness.”
“Although I haven’t felt physically threatened, I think everyone, at some level, feels racism in the back of their head. It’s always there,” said Aaron Tanaka ’04. “The fact that it happens to even one person in the Harvard community definitely affects me. I was pretty shocked and appalled by the fact that it’s still happening.”
It happened just last fall, in fact, when a Muslim student, returning home from an Islamic prayer meeting was attacked outside St. Paul’s Church in Harvard Square. A homeless man was later arrested in connection with the assault.
“The fear of violence is always there because we hear stories and we see the news,” said Eddie, a gay black student. “We probably feel a little safer here on campus because it’s a liberal environment … but at the same time it is [a public place] and you are always open to scrutiny and people making comments and staring at you.”
“The students here are typically tolerant,” said Scott Goldman ’04, a Jewish student from Washington, D.C. “I feel safe here. I’ve never felt any threat … but I have had enough conversations about my religion to know that it’s on people’s minds.”
Maxwell believes perpetuating an ongoing dialogue about hate crimes is one possible solution.
“It’s not like it’s a private issue. It doesn’t have to be taboo,” she said. “Half of the education at Harvard is the classes and the professors and they’re great, but the other half – and it’s a really important half – is what you can learn from other people. Your thinking can change and other people’s thinking can change so that’s the key.”
Jen Darrah ’01, a senior intern with the Harvard Foundation who helped organize the panel discussion, says that having even a handful of students talking about the issue can affect change on the entire campus.
“The goal is to raise consciousness, to push people to be thinking on all kinds of levels, and communicating with students of [different] backgrounds … We’d like to see that happen more often,” she explained. “Our feeling is that these kinds of conversations are really rare.”
As rare as they are, however, Alan Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation, believes they are having an impact on student life both at the University and beyond.
“It’s important to develop student leaders in the area of race relations and to help develop in students a sense of awareness about hate crimes,” Counter said. “Since our students really are leaders in so many other fields we hope they will take this information out with them, whether they are going to law school, medical school, or elsewhere. We want America to have good leaders in the area of race relations – people who can teach others to prevent hate crimes.
“Plus, when we conduct a program like this at Harvard, other universities and colleges look carefully at what we’re doing and they will initiate programs that they feel might share the same kind of enlightenment in their communities,” he continued, “And we want to be a stimulus for that kind of discussion about hate crimes against all members of society.”